The Sky Remembers
This is quite possibly the worst book I have ever managed to finish. Doing so was an effort of will, undertaken for reasons that are not clear to me but may involve my desire to write this review.
The story is simple enough. A cocky fighter pilot, a real leader of men, has had the stuffing knocked out of him by a near death experience. He’s recuperating, he’s lost his bottle, but it’s the darkest days of the Battle of Britain and he’s needed in the air.
He battles through his overwhelming doubt and his many losses and proceeds to return to the fight.
It could be all right. But the prose…
It’s relentless. It goes on like some kind of incantation. Here’s a bit more:
And on it goes. It reminds me of Beckett’s The Unnameable, but not in a good way. It’s 155 pages but a well-written 50 could have made this an evocative little piece. Instead, the author flings words at the reader in a desperate attempt to convince and evoke. Why say something once when you can say it three times?
The longest 155 pages I have ever read.
The table of contents for CSFG’s upcoming anthology A Hand of Knaves has just been released. I am pleased to announced that my story “A Moment’s Peace” is in the mix. (It’s a fantasy-world burglary featuring a point man with an unusual condition). You can see the full list of authors and titles here. A…
Children of Hurin
J R R Tolkien
I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in my early teens and enjoyed them well enough. I read The Silmarillion a few years later, and actually quite liked it, in a funny way. I mean, if approached as a novel it is not really adequate; but then by modern standards many long narratives are not really novels in the sense of being a story of evolution of character, or at least a character with a problem to solve. As pseudomythology, The Silmarillion is an interesting exercise. Creation myth, evil coming into the world, fate and doom, etc. I quite liked Melkor/Morgoth as a mythological figure. Driven to take part in creation but limited to a subservient role by the deity, he decided he needed his own world to rule. And though in the end defeated, his influence could never be eradicated. As he poured his spite and lies into the world, he became less, more limited, more worthy of scorn himself. Turning the world dark cost him his own substance yet meant that the world could never be free of his shadow. It’s a neat idea, well implemented.
So in that great battle of mere Men and Elves against the he who had been the right hand of the creator, there were, the prefatory material tels us, three key tales that Tolkien wanted to flesh out. This is the one that he came closest to finishing and thus the one tht allowed itself to be shaped into a coherent volume without the need for new text. And because Tolkien is a name to conjure with, and to sell many book, here we have Children of Hurin.
It is really the tragedy of Turin, son of Hurin. Powerful, impetuous, he fights and flees and fights and flees and where’er he goes Morgoth’s hordes follow and wreak destruction, such that Turin is like a plague, bringing disaster upon whoever helps him.
It’s all very high and mighty and mythic. But it is also more like a ‘normal’ story than The Silmarillion — it’s more like a novel. And weirdly that (for me) makes it less successful than The Silmarillion (caveat — I was young when I read the latter, and perhaps less critical). It makes no sense to judge The Silmarillion as a novel, but Hurin is a novel, yet the plot is like a Greek myth, the hero more like Beowulf, and the result is a weird clashing. Turin is so stupid! He is this great fighter who eggs on his supporters to fight Morgoth and so brings them destruction, and then he utterly fails to learn anything from this. In a myth, that might work, when everything is seen from a distance, like chess pieces viewed from above. But in a novel we expect at least some kind of sense from our actors, so his behaviour just fails to ring true and so undermines the whole story; we have grandeur, but no sense. “Who is carrying the idiot ball this week?”
When reading The Iliad, an adjustment modern readers have to make is that the players do emphatically not rise and fall based on their own strengths as people. They rise and fall based on who is favoured by the gods, which can make the plot seem arbitrary and lacking in internal motivation. It is a fundamental split from what we have come to expect in our fiction since probably the 18th century at least. Hurin needs to be read in a similar way, at least that’s what I found; I had to make a conscious effort to not expect what I usually expect from a novel. (What do I implicitly expect? A person has a problem, external or internal, and makes attempts to solve it/overcome it/avoid it. These attempts at least seem reasonable to the reader or seem like the kinds of things the protagonist would actually do given their character. A skillful writer can make the protagonist very different from the reader and yet still reasonable to the reader. )
Turin never becomes enough of a character for me to see his actions as reasonable in his terms, yet behaves irrationally in my terms. I think that’s why the book ultimately was unsatisfactory. The book is interesting if Tolkien’s world is interesting. It is not at all bereft of grandeur and striking images, notably the battle with Glaurung. Worth a read for the fan of fantasy, but it must be recognised that it is closer in tone to The Silmarillion than to The Lord of the Rings.
The Balloon Factory by Alexander Frater
The cover says ‘the story of the men who built Britain’s first flying machines’ but what it really is is ‘The story of the author’s journey to go to places related to the men who built Britain’s first flying machines’. There is a lot of the author in this book. Now, if you like the author to take centre stage and tell us about his own flying lessons and about how he went to Africa (or whatever) and the interesting chap he had lunch with while researching this book, then that suits fine. It’s a bit like those nature documentaries where we mostly see the presenter talking about their efforts to find the animal, rather than the animal itself.
The book contains some stuff about Sam Cody, De Havilland and Sir George Cayley, and J. W. Dunne who made strange but effective aeroplanes and An Experiment with Time. It is written with great fluency and charm, and does indeed contain some interesting information. Perhaps because written by a travel writer, it does not spend too much time on the technical aspects but tells the human stories of its protagonists, and they are an interesting bunch. On the other hand, it is far from comprehensive — there were many significant figures (the Short brothers, for example) who get very little attention. The author has been captured by a couple of personalities, mainly Cody who seems to occupy fully half the book, and so the picture is skewed and highly personal.
Despite the title, there is very little in it on balloons. Just FYI.
Conclusion: If you like a congenial host getting between you and the material and telling you his story as well as the story of his subject, this is a very pleasant read. If you prefer a book to focus on the subject rather than the teller, this may not suit. It is not a bad book, but it may not be what you expect.
I am now a textbook author! Well, one chapter out of fourteen… it’s a team effort. It’s a new Year 11 physics book for New South Wales, launched now for use in 2018; I have a couple of chapters in the Year 12 book, due out for 2019.
This book is Physics in Focus from Cengage. Here is the link to it:
And here is the cover.
There’s a big difference between knowing the physics and writing about it. One of the main things that I had to get used to was the constraints imposed by the curriculum. It is set at a high level and we work against specific dot points, which reduces scope for initiative but provides certainty and structure, and makes sure the book meets the needs to the teachers who are tasked with delivering that curriculum. The other thing was thinking about the language — it has to suit the audience. The kinds of sentences found in a scientific paper just don’t meet the criteria for clarity, simplicity and reading ease.
I’m waiting for my author’s copy to arrive in the post. Maybe I should get together a shelf of stuff instead of putting it in the cardboard box with my handful of other publications.
So I got this email:
Subject: Materials Science Books
From: Helen Edwards
Dear Dr. Goossens,
Firstly, please excuse this unsolicited email. I’m sure that like me you receive too many as it is and so I’ll keep it brief.
I was recently appointed as Commissioning Editor for Cambridge Scholars Publishing with a brief to expand the subject areas in which we publish books. As such I am in the process of developing a collection of books based in the field of Materials Science. As I believe you already have some experience of academic and scientific writing, I wondered whether you would consider us as your publisher should you decide to put ‘pen to paper’ and write a book at some point in the future?
We are also developing Editorial Advisory Groups to help ensure that we only publish high quality texts. If this is something that you would like to become involved in, please do let me know.
As I promised, I have kept this message short, but would be delighted to talk or correspond more if you feel you would like to explore possibilities.
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About Cambridge Scholars Publishing (www.cambridgescholars.com):
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CSP has its own printing facility, now publishes 750+ titles each year in both electronic and print formats and is committed to providing a forward-thinking publishing service that champions original thinking, whilst ensuring we put our authors at the heart of everything we do. Our back list catalogue contains approximately 7,500 titles.
So I google it ‘cos it looks dodgy and I find this: https://flakyj.blogspot.com.au/2017/09/cambridge-scholars-publishing.html. So chances are it is dodgy. The ‘I’m sure you’re busy’ start is a nice touch.
Now, they’re probably not as dodgy as many on this list; comments on the web are various. Overall impression is that they are not predatory — they do not seem to ask for money up front — but also not terribly highly regarded. So more of a ‘weak’ publication than an actively bad one. But they did solicit work from me using a generic email that looks like it was sent by a robot, albeit a polite one.
The battle between the Monitor and the Virginia appears with monotonous regularity in books about ships, particularly fighting ships. It was the first battle between iron ships, the first involving a ship with a turret, the first involving ships that did not rely on sail, nor even have masts as backup to the engines.
One thing this book brings home is how small it was. No great fleet action like Jutland or Lepanto or Trafalgar — it was really just a skirmish, though one with great repercussions.
deKay does a nice job of bringing these repercussions to light. They were strategic, technological and even geopolitical.
Strategic: The Confederate states needed access to weapons and materiel from Europe, and the Virginia‘s job was to break the blockade set up by the North. Hampton Roads was a vital nexus for bringing cargo from the Atlantic to inland waterways, and it was here that Virginia sallied out and caused pandemonium amongst the wooden ships. Though she was slow and hard to control, she was also impervious to their shots and could stand off and pound the Union ships into pieces. Had the Monitor not been flanged together in about 3 months and thrown into battle against the _Virginia_ almost as soon as completed, the civil was could have looked very different. Had the Confederates gained mastery of the east coast the marked superiority of the North in terms of industrial capacity would have been at least partially mitigated by better access to imports. Further, it is supposed that had the South been able to maintain this kind of sovereignty over its borders, which would promote interchange with Europe, it might have been granted diplomatic recognition by more potential trading partners. So the book pitches the one-on-one battle as a kind of ‘for want of a nail’ situation. Of course, it’s natural for an author to point out the significance of their topic — they’ve bothered to write about it after all — but there is some substance to this. Had the South been closer in stature to the North, the likelihood of a genuine fissioning of the USA would have to have been greater. We shall never know. Most likely, the war would have gone on even longer, caused even more suffering, and had the same outcome.
Technological: At a stroke, Monitor ushered in a new age in warship design. Though it low freeboard and raft-like construction limited it to coastal waters, it’s general concept — an iron hulled ship, powered by steam, dispensing with sail altogether and armed with turreted guns — was to dominate naval thinking until the rise of the aircraft carrier during WWII. Previous ironclads had looked like modified sailing ships, still arranging their guns in broadsides and still carrying a full complement of sails. Monitor must have looked like something from another world. Just as the Dreadnought reset the benchmarks in 1905, the Monitor forced a reappraisal of what made for a power navy. What value was a hundred ships of the line if a handful of ironclads could pick them off at leisure? So influential was the design of the Monitor that it leant it’s name to a style of ship. Shipyards around the world started building ‘monitors’, and would continue to turn them out for fifty years to come.
Geopolitical: It could be argued that the Monitor is the first significant example of the USA gaining technical, military leadership over Europe. It can be thought of as the very beginning of the process that led the USA to gain military and technological leadership during the 20th century. Ericsson, the man behind the Monitor, was a migrant who had been unable to sell his design in Europe. The strength of the US coming from its inclusiveness is a very modern idea, and the Monitor is an early and potent example.
Anyway, the book follows the politics and the military sides of the story. How the ship got built, how the battles were fought, and what it all meant. I would have liked more technical details — we do not even get a table summarising the capacities of the two combatants. Some more diagrams, perhaps cutaway, and clearer illustrations of how the two ships were laid out and so on, would have buttressed the work nicely and made it more rounded in its coverage. As it is, it is a nice little read.
The Age of Napoleon by Alistair Horne.
This book does a very readable job of looking at the influence of Napoleon. The famous battles — Austerlitz, Trafalgar, Wagram and all — are mentioned but not discussed in detail. They provide context, they chart the rise and fall of his empire, but they are not the focus of the book. In many ways Bonaparte reminds more of Alexander the Great than other modern conquerors. His time in charge was brief, he founded no long-lasting, united empire. Yet his influence was enormous and did persist. His was an epoch when the work of centuries seemed to happen in years. Much of what the revolution started was finished (or at least advanced far enough to make turning back impossible) by the dictator. From the metric system to reorganisation of schools and the redesigning of Paris itself.
Paris. In many ways this is a book of two stars. Paris and Napoleon, for in this book France and Paris are synonymous. We get the occasional sentence pointing out how desperate things were in the provinces, but we never visit there. That is the only real weakness of the book (aside from some odd editing — there is considerable repetition that might have been excised). Yes, it takes us away from the political histories that focus on battles and borders and the struggle for leadership, but only as far as the salons and streets of Paris. How did Paris react to the rise and fall of Bonaparte? What monuments did he build there? How were the Prussians and the English received after the fall(s)? It’s all here — if it happened in Paris.
The book does cover the age of Napoleon in Paris. His influence on the rest of the continent is alluded to (he is credited with releasing the ‘genie of German nationalism’, thus triggering the events of the next 130 years, events that would end in another conquering dictator whose efforts ended in ignominy). Hitler is explicitly compared with Napoleon, and reasonably enough comes off poorly, since Napoleon does not seem to have engaged in genocide, slavery or rampant anti-Semitism. He did run a police state, though, and was rather keen on monumental architecture.
The book is a quick, easy read. It does a nice job of outlining the times and the man’s role in them.
Yeah, it’s really funny. Reads very much like spoken word written down. Words fly by quickly, often ironic or mordant. It’s short, generously leaded, so probably not that many words. It’s like therapy bound into a codex and sold.
Fortunately, there’s not too much about Starwars, since I am over 12 years old and don’t care about it. It’s kind of sad how large it loomed in her life. It’s often struck me that being an entertainer is a funny sort of thing, from the point of view of fulfilment. Is helping people pass their time away satisfying? I guess the key thing, if you’re the reflective type, would be whether you feel that you’re enriching the viewers’ lives or just helping pass the time until the grave. But what value a laugh or a thrill? People love those movies, probably too much. What’s wrong with giving people something that they just plain really like? Nothing.
The book made me think about people with the same mental issues as Fisher but without the cushion of money or the spotlight of fame. I don’t know what’s worse, but it seems to me she could always afford and find a therapist, so maybe the money and fame might be preferable as a position to inhabit while battling demons. Also, you can write a book about it and people will read it ‘cos they’ve heard of you.
Her story certainly makes a strong case that it would be preferable to win fame after a few years in the real world, rather than spending your whole live in an unmoored bubble.
Funny. Honest. Worth the little time it takes to read it. Probably better on stage, but sadly it’s too late for that now. The self-destructive stories in the book take on a darker tone now that they’ve taken their tithe. Perhaps it’s not as funny as it would have been a little while ago…